Some strong players often ask me about making a living from chess; they’ve worked hard on improving their game but then discover that it doesn’t pay the rent. At one time titled players were supported by the state, especially in eastern Europe, but those days are long gone. So what are they to do?
Well let’s assume that we’re not talking about one of the top ten players in the World who tend to do pretty well in terms of appearance fees and prize money. Can lesser lights make a living from playing alone? Maybe, but it certainly helps if they don’t mind sleeping on the odd park bench whilst waiting for their bus back from Barcelona. And they’d need to have a friendly disposition that means teams and tournament organizers will want them around.
There are of course activities such as teaching chess or writing about it but these require some other highly developed skill sets. Writing openings books full of variations and just a few words is no longer an option, computer databases made them obsolete. So you have to be able to string quite a few words together whilst not sending the reader to sleep.
Teaching is, if anything, even harder than writing well, it also involves lucid explanation but you also have to put yourself in the position of the student. People learn in very different ways and you have to be able to present things in a way that they can grasp. This isn’t easy at all, especially if you’re teaching people with a different learning style to your own.
Are there ways to combine chess with a regular job? Indeed there are, but again it isn’t easy. A number of strong players were contract computer programmers and would try to work part of the year and play chess for the rest of it. But the golden era of computer contracting seemed to come to an end when the danger of the Millennium Bug subsided.
Being a school teacher was traditionally a good option for chess players with the long holidays making it possible to play in tournaments. But this too has been harder of late because of the amount of work teachers must do during the holidays, for example redesigning the syllabus they’re teaching or marking.
I think this all goes to explain the rise of internet chess and why many strong players have stopped playing. Many of the UK’s Grandmasters are not currently playing; it takes time and effort to maintain one’s playing chess and without any kind of reward (financial or some new achievement) being possible then why bother? I too have joined their ranks, though I do spend a lot of my time on chess every week and play a bit on the internet.
Here anyway is a rousing performance by one of the UK’s absent GMs, James Howell. Apparently he decided that there wasn’t much of a future in chess, gave all his books away and just stopped. As you can see, he was a good player: